First, I want to thank each of the members of the GITS community who has or will contribute a guest post to the Classic 80s Movies series (you can find links to all of the entries here).
I was inspired to run the Classic 80s Movies series because that decade, perhaps more than any other, embraced the idea of high concept. Let’s be clear: A high concept does not guarantee a great story idea. Nor does it necessarily make the basis for a great movie. Some writers will never traffic in high concepts and if it’s a foreign way of thinking for them, they shouldn’t.
But the reality is high concept has been a part of Hollywood’s filmmaking business since the industry’s inception, even if the phrase didn’t come into use decades later. What is the essence of the story? Can you distill it into one or two lines?
I mean check out the plot summary for the 1932 movie It Happened One Night which won 5 Oscars: “A spoiled heiress, running away from her family, is helped by a man who’s actually a reporter looking for a story.”
As noted in this post:
We can even go more granular by talking about story-conceit, which I would define as the “central premise of the story.” With the movie K-9, it was the premise of a human cop teamed up with a dog cop. With Inception, it’s the premise that people can enter into other people’s dream states. With Groundhog Day, it’s the premise that someone has to relive a day over and over again.
So what can we learn from the list of 80s movies we have covered thus far in our series:
A Fish Called Wanda
Back to School
While there is no set definition of what constitutes a high concept, out of this list, I would put a spotlight on four of them as having clean story-conceits:
Back to School: Fun-loving, rich businessman goes to college.
Night Shift: Two guys run a brothel out of a morgue.
Top Gun: Rogue pilot in elite U.S. Navy jet training academy.
Working Girl: Frustrated secretary pretends to have her boss’s job.
Each just a handful of words… yet I get each story immediately. Hell, even the titles do a good job of conveying the story-conceit, especially Back to School and Top Gun.
The others are pretty close. Real Genius has the focus on these super bright students, but then there’s the whole laser project which needs to figure into the logline.
Scarface has a clean one-liner: “In 1980 Miami, a determined Cuban immigrant takes over a drug cartel while succumbing to greed.”
Say Anything has this for an IMDB plot summary: “A noble underachiever and a beautiful valedictorian fall in love the summer before she goes off to college.” Again pretty clean, but it’s a character piece, so not your basic high concept.
A Fish Called Wanda is probably the furthest removed from the model. Again from IMDB: “In London, four very different people team up to commit armed robbery, then try to double cross each other for the loot.” So it’s a heist movie, but “four very different people” doesn’t convey who and what they’re about, thus again probably not high on the high concept scale.
Let me repeat: I am not saying you have to think in terms of high concepts. However they are a big part of the Hollywood movie business. Thus if you are capable of thinking in those terms and you do find a high concept story that has a unique spin to it, and you feel passionate about writing it, good for you.
You may be asking, “Okay, Myers, how do I come up with a high concept story?” Let’s look to an interview I did with screenwriter David Guggenheim who wrote Safe House, the hit movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington that David sold as a spec script. Here is the logline: “A young CIA agent is tasked with looking after a fugitive in a safe house, but when the safe house is attacked, he finds himself on the run with his charge.”
I asked David how he came up with this idea:
I love spy movies, and that’s my favorite genre to work in. And what I like doing, is taking a piece of a movie, that’s usually isn’t the focal of the movie, and blowing that up, and saying let’s do the movie from that point of view. I’d seen safe houses before in movies…you see them all the time. But I thought, “Well this would be interesting, if we just did the movie about the guy who’s sitting there…who’s sitting there doing nothing, and make that character, who’s usually in the movie about one scene…let’s make him the star of his own movie.” Once you have that idea, you go…OK, what’s the most interesting dynamic that you can come up with, and I love the veteran, freshman dynamic…I love The Color of Money dynamic.
And once I had that dynamic, I could then craft the story around that and I knew I wanted something with a clean set-up — like Three Days of the Condor — and to pair it with an anti-buddy movie, where your hero is in the same car as the villain.
Key elements: Safe house. Guy working there. Now he becomes the center of the action. How? Pair him with the villain and put them on the run.
Boom. High concept. But note that David started the process with the story-conceit: Safe house.
Frankly most spec scripts do not even get past Hollywood’s starting gate precisely because they do not have a strong enough story concept. Therefore whether you think in terms of mainstream, commercial high concepts or not, I can virtually guarantee you would be doing yourself a big favor by devoting more time generating and developing story concepts.
80s movies remind us how important story concepts are. And if your creative self is built for it, high concepts.
Next Monday, we’ll look at this week’s classic 80s movies and what lessons we can glean from them in terms of story concept. For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on their importance. Or perhaps you disagree. If so, I welcome your perspective. There’s no right or wrong here, and I’m not pushing any agenda other than encouraging all of us, myself included, to work with the strongest story ideas possible because in my view that is the line of least resistance when it comes to getting a script noticed in Hollywood.